Talk to guitarists about who are their top guitarists and you’ll get lots of opinions. Those opinions are usually based on genre and the person’s age, so note that this guitar article is especially for 70s rock fans. Here we talk about five great guitarists for which some very cool isolated guitar tracks have come to light: Jimmy Page, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi, and Eddie Van Halen.
We’d love to have included here all who are considered top guitarists of the 70s, which would certainly include David Gilmour, Duane Allman, Carlos Santana, Angus Young, Ry Cooder, Mick Ronson, and some others. Trouble is, material from them is hard to find. But we’ll keep looking…
On to what we do have. Listening to isolated guitar tracks not only allows you to hear some of your favorite tunes a new way, it is also informative for anyone trying to figure out: “What is that guy doing on that part, anyway?” Chord and lick details that you would not be able to clearly hear when listening to a full mix are now unveiled before your ears on these tracks.
Hearing what guitar/amp combos really sound like
You can also hear the tone of each guitar track completely without the color of other instruments and vocals. Like every musician, these top guitarists dabbled in all sorts of guitar/amp combinations throughout their careers, but most did settle on some preferences that defined their signature sound.
For example, in these isolated studio tracks you can fully soak up the honking, snarling Marshall-fueled tones that Eddie Van Halen got with his homemade, hot wired Fender Stratocaster body guitar.
You can marvel at the notchy, chiming tone of Queen’s Brian May achieves with his homemade “Red Special” guitar and Vox AC30 amp combo.
Or you can sit back and enjoy the wall of sound that Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin achieves in hammering out a Zeppelin classic on, commonly, a Gibson Les Paul through, well… whatever amp he actually used. Apparently, Page has always been vague when asked what amp he used on Zeppelin recordings although many speculate that it was either the unusual Supro 1690T that he donated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or some other Supro model.
So, let’s take a listen to some of the tracks that have come to light in recent years, in no particular order of greatness (we know that fans of top guitarists can get pretty protective of their favorites):
Artist: Led Zeppelin
A mysterious guitar hero who came up with genius guitar parts for classic rock anthems of one of rock’s most famous bands ever, Jimmy Page started out playing a Fender Telecaster in the earlier group The Yardbirds but switched over mostly to Gibson Les Pauls with Led Zeppelin. His technique is driven by an inherent feel for at times delivering monstrous riffs with great drama and at others spinning tender nuances with subtle delivery. His work has become a staple of most guitarist’s top ten. Here are a couple of examples:
Led Zeppelin | Whole Lotta Love (multitrack)
Led Zeppelin | Ramble On (multitrack)
Artists: Deep Purple, Rainbow
No rock guitarist who was young in the 70s hasn’t been caught playing Ritchie Blackmore’s classic “Smoke On The Water” riff at some point. Known for that thundering riff and other work with Deep Purple, Blackmore also appeared in his own group Rainbow (originally Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow) later in the 70s. He split with his Deep Purple band mates, who by then included David Coverdale, because of creative differences. Some of his work can be heard here on isolated tracks:
Deep Purple | Smoke On The Water (Richie Blackmore guitar only)
Deep Purple | Space Truckin’ (Richie Blackmore guitar only)
Known for playing a guitar he made himself with an English penny for a pick and an electrifyingly liquid tone, Brian May is as much a component of Queen’s distinctive sound as was its legendary vocalist Freddie Mercury. In the 70s, the group became known for placing the statement “No synthesizers were used on this album” in the liner notes of their albums to remind listeners that the amazing sounds they were hearing were actually emanating from May’s guitar work. Check out these examples:
Queen | Now I’m Here (multitrack)
Queen | Killer Queen (Brian May guitar only)
Artist: Black Sabbath
Tony Iommi was a founding member of Black Sabbath and an early pioneer of downtuning his guitar several semitones to create the signature dark and heavy tone that guitarists for many heavy rock and heavy rock derivative acts prefer today. First fronted by Ozzy Osbourne, Iommi continued with Sabbath into the period during which Ronnie James Dio fronted the band. Often playing through Laney amplifiers, Iommi recorded most of his tracks using Gibson guitars, often with the SG model but also experimented with and developed custom guitars, such as a 24 fret model, built by John Birch.
Black Sabbath | Into The Void (multitrack)
Black Sabbath | Children Of The Grave (Tony Iommi guitar only)
Eddie Van Halen
Artist: Van Halen
By the close of the decade, a pair of album releases in 1978 (Van Halen) and 1979 (Van Halen II) had unleashed a new guitar talent on the scene. With energy, speed and a unique technique flowing through a cranked Marshall Super Lead #1959 amp (a 12,000 Series Metal Panel Plexi 100-Watt, according to close watchers), Van Halen’s sound was defined by its namesake guitarist’s stellar fretwork. Varying little from his signature style over the years, Van Halen utilized finger tapping, hammer-ons, double picking, and creative use of feedback liberally throughout his playing. Here are some more great examples from the late 70s of Eddie’s virtuosity and unique style:
Van Halen | Atomic Punk (Eddie Van Halen guitar only)
Van Halen | Unchained (multitrack)
Van Halen | Runnin’ With The Devil (Eddie Van Halen guitar)
Image credits: b/w guitar: ^riza^/flickr.com, Les Paul guitar: Mad House Photography/flickr.com
Brian May: Lola’s Big Adventure/flickr.com, Deep Purple poster, Tony Iommi, Eddie Van Halen: Carl Lender/flickr.com